What does it mean to be a survivor? And I’m not talking about
outsmarting a bunch of other people on an island in the South Pacific.
I’m talking surviving something that you’re not supposed to. Something
that shakes your very foundation and makes you find out what you’re
truly made of. In my case, it was cancer. When does one become a
survivor? Traditional medical advice says you are considered a survivor
one year from diagnosis, others say five. No matter what, surviving
cancer is a big deal.
In my mind, it starts the minute you are diagnosed. I started survival
mode the second I heard, “Mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that kills most
people within two years.” I didn’t think about the impossible odds or the
bad outcomes, I thought about what I had to do to beat it.
It took about a year to finish all my treatments. I was diagnosed in
November of 2005 and finished up my last radiation treatment in
October of the following year. I remember walking out of the cancer
center, holding my certificate of completion for finishing radiation, and
thinking, “Now what?” I had just dedicated an entire year fighting this
disease, giving everything I had, and all I had to show for it was a silly
certificate. I felt like I was cast out and left alone in my fight. It should
have been a great moment — a time that I found out there really was a
top to this world. Instead, all I felt was abandonment.
You see, surviving cancer isn’t the end as people think — it’s only the
beginning. It is a constant battle. Unless you’ve been through it, you
can’t begin to understand what we feel. For the longest time, every
ache, every pain, every unexplained bruise pointed back to my cancer. I
can’t count how many times I thought it was back. The thing is, the
aches and pains always coincided with my check ups. I have a word for
this: “scanxiety.” It sums up, in one word, what we all feel in those days
leading up to the scans. Every single time they come back normal, those
phantom symptoms miraculously disappear.
There are some physical issues that come as a result of long-term
survivorship as well. Surgery, chemo, and radiation do quite the number
on one’s body. As a result of the surgery, my body will never be the
same. My spine has a bit of a curve to it — I’m quite lopsided — my left
side being noticeably weaker than my right. I have nerve damage in my
left arm and hand as a result of radiation, which makes my hand weak, numb, and twitchy. I have issues with my esophagus and stomach as
well. No more spicy buffalo wings for this girl. In all seriousness though,
the hardest thing I had to overcome was the fact that having another
child was out of the question. It was a hard reality to come to terms
with, but I’m so very thankful that I have my daughter. She is everything
I was prepared for the physical obstacles, but it was the mental ones
that caught me by surprise. Some days it is hard not to wonder if or
when the disease will come back, a stark reality that sadly, cancer
victims know all too well. I try not to dwell on this though and just move
on. This isn’t something that people instinctively know how to handle.
I’ve sought out counseling a few times to help me deal with these things,
and it has done wonders. Staying positive is something I work on daily
to keep myself optimistic and in a place of hope. My spirituality has
played a huge part in keeping me in that place. I have someone bigger to
lean on. When I wake up in the morning, I take a moment and thank God
for giving me this day.
It’s been seven years. As time went on, my checks-ups came and went.
Three months, then four, and before long, they turned into years. I wore
those years like a badge, something that I carry with me everyday to
remind me that I am a survivor. Now, I focus on looking ahead instead of
behind me. I look forward to those milestones: 30-40-50! I want to grow
old with my husband. I want to see my baby graduate, go to college, get
married, and have her own children.
These seven years have been my battle, but I realize that my story is not
just my own. It’s not just about me anymore, but about the others like
me — my fellow survivors. We have so much left to do. I have no plans of
giving up or being anything but a survivor.